Samantha King

photo by Justin Chin.
photo by Justin Chin.

Sometimes the truth stings.

Sometimes the truth aches.

Sometimes the truth absolutely brutalizes.

Samantha King‘s truth is brutal. She is the author of Pink Ribbons, Inc.: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy. It is a painful examination of the Susan G. Komen Foundation’s immoral and greedy methods of preying upon cancer sufferers and their family members and friends to raise money via any means necessary. It’s a story of heartbreak, of exploitation, of a rudderless movement that has lost sight of what should be the ultimate goal: Breast cancer prevention.

An associate professor of kinesiology and health studies at Queen’s University at Kingston, King’s research has focused largely upon the breast cancer fundraising industry. Here, in Quaz No. 120, she talks about the evil of pink KFC buckets, the hurt feelings of women and why, oh why, a charity with the capacity to do much much good as dropped the ball.

Samantha King, welcome to the Quaz …

JEFF PEARLMAN: Dr. King, let me start with a blunt one: Should I be disgusted by the Susan G. Komen Foundation? Because, right now, I pretty much am.

SAMANTHA KING: You have every right to feel that way. Their 2012 decision to defund Planned Parenthood, which they ultimately reversed in the wake of a major public outcry, was just the latest in a series of questionable actions which bring into doubt their commitment to women’s health. How the Komen board can justify a $684,000 salary for CEO Nancy Brinker when participation in their events has plummeted is beyond me. Following the Planned Parenthood debacle, Brinker said she would step down, but ten months later she’s still at the helm, and enjoying a 64% pay rise to boot.

J.P.: Whenever I’ve written a book, I’ve always thought—A. Does the subject interest me? B. Will it have a chance of selling? Actually, that sounds pretty calloused and corporate. Oy. Why did you write Pink Ribbons, Inc.? What was your motivation?

S.K.: I began researching the book in the late 1990s when I was a doctoral student at the University of Illinois. My goal was to understand how breast cancer had become corporate America’s favourite cause. In short, how did we go from stigma and secrecy to pink buckets of Kentucky Fried Chicken for the Cure? I’m a natural skeptic and something didn’t smell right about this transformation. I wanted to provide an honest account of the pink ribbon industry and its implications for people with the disease, for those who research and treat it, and for the culture at large.

Screen Shot 2013-09-18 at 12.48.56 AMJ.P.: I’m guessing there are many people out there—especially women—who either read your book and/or watched the documentary and feel like suckers right now. That all that fundraising and walking and mental and physical devotion was all for corporate-backed nonsense. Are they wrong to feel this way? Were they, well, suckered?

S.K.: That’s a tough question. On the one hand, when the book first came out I was pleasantly surprised by how well received it was and by the numbers of readers who told me that they had long felt uncomfortable with the overly optimistic, corporate approach to the disease. On the other hand, the shock expressed by many long term supporters about Komen’s lack of integrity in the Planned Parenthood case made it very clear to me that the public had invested a great deal of trust in Komen and the other big players in the breast cancer industry. It wasn’t just that people gave time and money to breast cancer research because everyone else was doing it; they actually believed they were doing something meaningful. And why wouldn’t they? They’ve been told that running a race, wearing a ribbon, or buying a pink vacuum would help find a cure for a horrible disease, and they’ve been shown the results: billions of dollars raised for grateful breast cancer survivors. But what they weren’t told was how little actually came out of all this, that breast cancer incidence and mortality rates remain stubbornly high and that we have basically the same treatment options as we did when the War on Cancer was launched by President Nixon more than forty years ago. These people aren’t suckers, they’ve just been mislead about the impact of their efforts.

J.P.: Why is it that the word “prevention” doesn’t seem to resonate the way “cure” does? I mean, isn’t preventing breast cancer a REALLY important thing to do? It just seems like the word hasn’t—for lack of better terming—stuck. Why?

S.K.: I don’t think it’s so much that the word doesn’t resonate, but rather that preventative research doesn’t offer the same prestige—or potential for profit—as does a focus on “the cure.” If a biomedical scientist is successful in preventing breast cancer, they don’t have much to show for their work except a bunch of healthy women (plain old women, not some advertising executive’s image of a “survivor”) who may not have developed the disease in any case. It’s also easier to keep producing mediocre treatments than it is to fundamentally restructure our society so that we may live in a clean and safe environment. As a result, we’ve spent way more time and money developing treatments than we have investigating causes. Research on prevention, and particularly on environmental links to breast cancer, should be a top priority and it should be independently funded; only then will prevention resonate more powerfully than “the cure.”

J.P.: Last year I was sitting inside a McDonald’s with my daughter, and we were reading the fine print on the bottom of a Happy Meal Box. The box was decorated with all this Ronald McDonald House stuff—but in the tiniest of letters it said, “1 cent of each purchase will go to the Ronald McDonald House.” This struck me as such bullshit, and made me think McDonald’s is only doing the House to look good and, ultimately, make more money for shareholders. Is my cynicism going too far? Can it really just be that there are a whole lot of assholes in the world willing to milk causes to increase profits?

S.K.: I’ve rarely come across a marketing executive who is ill-intentioned in developing such campaigns. The problem is that their good intentions are guided by the bottom line and as a result make a much bigger difference to the company’s brand image than they do to whatever cause they are designed to assist. From a broader perspective, I think we need to ask if we really think we’re going to solve the world’s problems by encouraging people to buy more stuff.

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 9.35.47 PMJ.P.: We, in journalism, use “fighting” a disease ALL the time. Is that, simply, the wrong word?

S.K.: I don’t like the militarist terminology, or the suggestion that the person with the disease has control over its outcome, but it’s extremely hard to avoid. One of my favourite moments in the film is when Barbara Ehrenreich tells the viewers, “I wasn’t battling anything. I was forcing myself to comply with the treatments my doctor recommended. Is that a battle? I don’t think so.”

J.P.: I know you teach at Queens University, I know you wrote this book—but how did you get here? As in, what was your life path to reaching this point?

S.K.: I grew up in London, England, and first came to Kingston in my early twenties to do my master’s degree. After finishing my PhD at Illinois, I worked at the University of Arizona, in Tucson, for three years, and then found myself back in Kingston. None of this was planned, but I like school and somehow never left.

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 9.37.59 PMJ.P.: For my money, the tipping point in this anti-movement came when KFC started with the pink ribbons. Forget that it was a miniscule amount of money (relatively). What bothered me was the selling of breasts (dead chicken ones) to “fight” for women’s breasts. It just struck me as, well, gross. What did you think of the whole KFC campaign? And did it wind up working for the company?

S.K.: Komen reached new depths of poor judgement with the KFC campaign. If high fat diets are linked to breast cancer—an unsubstantiated but nonetheless widely held belief—what was the self-described “global leader of the breast cancer movement” doing promoting a fat and sodium laden product? More pointedly, how did an organization supposedly dedicated to saving lives decide to partner with a corporation embroiled in a lawsuit with the state of California over the use of a known carcinogen—PhIP—in the preparation of its chicken? As a Facebook group that sprung up in opposition to the partnership asked: What will be next, pink cigarettes for the cure? Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised. Given Komen’s long history of partnerships with the chemical, cosmetics, and car industries, known threats to public health are clearly not their primary concern. Perhaps because of a broader (and frequently moralizing) concern around obesity, as well as increasing recognition that food quality is an important component of good health, the Buckets for the Cure promotion did elicit a quicker and more vexed response than other dubious endeavors brought to the public by the Komen enterprise. Komen responded to the outcry by claiming that KFC offers a range of healthy menu options and placed responsibility squarely with individual consumers. The nerve!

J.P.: What has been the reaction to you and your work from the pink movement? Have they tried to discredit? Attack? Or have they meekly sighed and hope people don’t notice?

S.K.: I’ve encountered very little direct criticism. Their public relations strategy has been to stay quiet, though Nancy Brinker is interviewed in the film and viewers get to see first hand how hard it is for her to articulate a reasonable defense of the industry that she leads.

J.P.: Is there a cure for breast cancer in our future? Or is this merely a pipe dream?

S.K.: I don’t like to make predictions, and I’m no scientist. From what I read, however, it’s unlikely that there’s going to be just one cure, because there’s not just one type of breast cancer. Even if we find a bunch of cures, my preference would be that we learn what causes the disease and seek to stop it at its source.

Screen Shot 2013-09-17 at 9.35.16 PMQUAZ EXPRESS WITH SAMANTHA KING:

Last time you bought a pink piece of clothing? And what was it?: I have nothing against pink, in fact it’s one of my favourite colours, but I can’t be seen wearing it too often because people start to ask difficult questions. That said, I did buy a fluorescent pink tank about a year ago.

Should the Mets fire Terry Collins?: Who’s Terry Collins?

Five reasons for one to make  Kingston, Ontario his/her next vacation destination: 1) Limestone architecture, 2) Big Sandy Bay, 3) sunny patios, with the option to flee to 4) Toronto or 5) Montreal if the small-town charm wears thin.

I’m trying to start a charity for the Gangly Jewish Journalists of New Rochelle, N.Y. What should our symbol be?: Perhaps a visioning session is in order.

Rank in order (favorite to least)—Nancy Goodman Brinker, Montreal Expo hats, Bryan Adams, iPhone, Grand Canyon, Meg Whitman, The Color Purple (the film), Richard Pryor, seashells, Canadian bacon: 1. Grand Canyon, 2. The Color Purple (the film), 3. Richard Pryor, 4. seashells, 5. iPhone, 6. Bryan Adams, 7. Montreal Expo hats, 8. Meg Whitman, 9. Nancy Goodman Brinker, 10. Canadian bacon (I’m a vegetarian. Otherwise Brinker would be last)

Do newspapers have a future?: The Guardian, yes, but I’m not sure about the rest.

Three memories from your first date: I’m British and we don’t tend to “date.”

Would you vote Styx into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame?: I’m musically illiterate, so I’d have to defer, or sell my vote.

Would you rather become a two-pack-per-day cigarette smoker or have two of your toes chopped off via rusty saw?: Do e-cigarettes count?

There’s a Dunkin Donuts moving in around the corner. Can my neighborhood Starbucks survive?: I would think so. Don’t they cater to different demographics?